What's a blog?
This is a slippery question. It's one of those questions like "How big is the Internet?"
whose answer require much qualification and weaselling and assumptions that skirt the
scars left behind by ancient holy wars that were ignited by eariler askers and smoulder
There are some dry and technical answers, of course. How about this one?
>A blog is a web-site maintained by a blogger.
>A blogger is someone who maintains a blog.
Well, that sucks.
>A blog is a web-page that contains brief, discrete hunks of
>information. These hunks are arranged in reverse-chronological
>order (the most recent hunks come first). Each hunk is uniquely
>identified by an anchor tag, and it is marked with a
>permanent link that can be referred to by others who wish to link to it.
If you like your definitions dry as twigs, that's not a bad one. It tells you what a blog is,
but not what a blog is for.
(Here come the holy wars!)
What's a blog for?
I co-edit a blog called Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things. Boing Boing is
full of snippets about those things that interest my co-editors and I. Here's what the first
screenful looks like right now:
Discrete hunks links to each
of text, in entry
The two most recent posts are about science fiction, the third is about a futurists’
convention. I’m a science fiction writer – among other things – so you may conclude that
Boing Boing is “about” science fiction. That’s not actually the case, though. In the thirty
most recent posts, we have:
• A note congratulating my brother and his fiancée on their engagement
• A link to a video of an old Apple computer ad demonstrating the first version of
• A news item about a mysterious corpse discovered in the lagoon at Walt Disney
• A news item about Christian Fundamentalists who’ve started a video-chain for
renting out censored versions of Hollywood blockbusters
• An editorial about a new law that would make it illegal to distribute software that
could receive and manipulate digital broadcast TV programming without
• Some schadenfreude about the recent drop in Verisign’s stock price, with
inflammatory prose calling for the company’s demise
• A story about the plan to serve juice made form dog-meat at the Seoul World Cup
• Links to two contrary proposals for reforming ICANN, the body that governs the
• Various humorous links (new Nevada plates with mushroom-clouds, an ad for
little people to act in an “Oompa-Loompa porn movie,” bumper-stickers calling
on people to burn art, and an essay that argues that the Smurfs were a Communist
• Progress reports on the Blosxom blogging engine that Rael Dornfest is writing
• A number of stories about wireless networking, including a link to a New York
Times story about a town-wide wireless initiative, a first-hand account of a
telecomms policy meeting, and more
• A how-to on running a local mail-server under Mac OS X
• A link to an eBay auction for a iron-on featuring original art by my co-editor,
• An editorial celebrating the Library of Congress’s emulator initiative and
predicting an imminent collision with copyright-protection laws
Boing Boing is an eclectic mix of personal rambling, technical discussion, social
commentary, literary news, and current-events. It’s a soap box where my co-editors and I
post whatever the hell we feel like, without having to pitch it to an editor, run it past a
legal department, or concern ourselves with anyone else’s notion of newsworthiness.
It’s gloriously self-indulgent, instantaneously gratifying and infinitely rewarding (though
the rewards are intangible, by and large). I find my blogfodder through many channels:
• Through visiting news sites and other blogs
• Suggestions from readers and friends
• Things I see and hear in meatspace
• TV, radio, magazines, and other one-way media
• Mailing lists and online communities
I have always been an avid infovore and a Blog, Weblog, Blogger
promiscuous communicator, ingesting factoids
by the netload and excreting them over anyone “Weblog” is the word coined by Jorn Barger
to describe a page of reverse-chronological
who’ll hold still. I love learning new things, links. The word implies that a weblog is a
and before I had a blog, I’d write myself little kind of record of where some editor has been
notes and pass along choice tidbits to friends that day and what she saw along the way.
by email. Now that I’m on the Boing Boing “Blog,” coined in semi-seriousness by Peter
team, I just post all those notes to the Web. My Merholz (http://www.peterme.com), is more
blog gives me a crib sheet for all the info I’ve than an abbreviation for weblog; it’s also a
verb (“I blogged that yesterday.”)
picked up along the way and an audience to
share them with – and what’s more, the A “weblogger” or a “blogger” is one who
audience feeds back, pointing me in new blogs.
directions. “Blogger” (big-B) is a blog-tool created and
maintained by Pyra Labs
Boing Boing is alarmingly popular. This month (http://www.blogger.com).
(April 2002), we’ll probably serve out 200,000
pages to between 6000 and 7000 readers a day. That’s up about 20 percent from last
month, and Boing Boing has grown by 20-30 percent every month since it started.
I’ve done a fair bit of traditional journalism, writing for national magazines and even
daily papers, and except for the fact that no one pays me for it, blogging roundly kicks
journalism ass. I get an idea – say, a thought about the Library of Congress’s plan to use
emulators to preserve old digital documents and the way that this conflicts with the
copyright industry’s agenda to restrict computers to protect their media. I write up a rant
about it, just a half-dozen paragraphs, and I paste it into a form on the Web and hit
submit. Two minutes later, my readers have come along to tell me how right – and how
wrong – I am.
Compare that with a feature for a national magazine: I get an idea and write up a three-
paragraph pitch. I send it to my editor, who gives me some feedback within a day or two.
I revise the pitch a couple times over the course of a week, and then my editor takes it to
her boss, who puts it in front of the editorial committee. Another week goes by and I get
an assignment letter telling me to write the story I pitched. I turn in the story two weeks
later, then do at least two rewrites as the fact-checkers and the copy-editors go through
the piece. Then it goes back to the editorial committee, which may have changed its mind
and want a completely different story – another rewrite. Finally, the story is approved,
and then, providing that the magazine doesn’t decide to kill the story in favor of
something else, the story runs four to six weeks later (if I’m lucky – sometimes, the story
gets stalled for three or four months). Once the issue’s on the stands, readers start to send
in letters to the editor in response. The responses that the editor likes run two issues later
– so it can take six months to hear back from my readers about my stuff.
My blog is a great way to talk trash about the stuff I hate, using my own hyperbolic
voice. Here’s a bit I wrote about Verisign:
Let's put Verisign to death
The best thing to come out of the Enron debacle was the swift
and unrelenting vilification of Andersen. Enron may have been
run by a pack of theiving, lying bastards, but that didn't come as
a surprise to anyone -- they were in the energy-trading business,
not the trustworthiness business. But Andersen, ah, they were in
the trustworthiness business. Their entire value was as a
disinterested, brutally honest third-party auditor. It's become
clear -- to my surprise -- that Andersen can't ever rehabilitate
their reputation. They have been sentenced to death by the
marketplace for betraying its trust.
Another trustworthiness company, Verisign, deserves the same
swift retribution. Verisign is a certifier of certificates, a manager
of critical Internet infrastructure, and a pack of bumbling,
cheating incompetents. Their Network Solutions division -- whose
practices Verisign endorses with liberal sprinklings of logos and
checkmarks -- is notorious for failing to do its duty to the
Internet in maintaining the integrity of the Domain Name system
that is in its charge.
NetSol's only significant One of Verisign's most signficant assets
is its ICANN charter to run big hunks of DNS. It is this asset that
Verisign purchased when it acquired NetSol. Now, even ICANN
recognizes that NetSol can't be trusted to manage the .ORG top-
level domain. Verisign gave up its charter to run .ORG recently,
and with any luck a little push from the Distributed Republic of
Blogistan will cost it the rest of its charter, putting it to death for
the crime of betraying our trust again and again (and again and
Here's a rallying point: A domain, hoopla.com, has been stolen
with NetSol's complicity. A guy in Berlin faxed in a regstration for
the domain (which was not set to expire until June) and NetSol
handed it over to him. Instead of rectifying their error, they have
told the owner to go to hell, negotiate to buy the domain from its
new "owner," or just get lost.
Let's put NetSol to death. We're the Alpha Geeks of our social
circles. When people ask us about registering domains, let's be
sure to tell them to register anywhere except NetSol, because
they will sell your domain to someone else and do nothing about
it. When we attend conferences where NetSol or Verisign execs
are speaking, let's hijack the Q&A and hound them about why we
should trust them when they so cavalierly robbed hoopla.com's
owner of her property. If NetSol resolves this issue (ha!), then
ask pointed questions about why it took such a massive putsch to
get them to do the right goddamned thing. If you're at an ICANN
meeting, raise hoopla.com and your own horror stories and
demand that NetSol be stripped of its charter. Tell your company
to certify with companies other than Verisign. Don't use Verisign
for credit-card processing.
Let's come up with some good insulting memes for describing
Verisign and its business-units: "Arthur Verisign," "Enron
Solutions," "Not Very-Sign," "Network Problems," etc. Let's put
them to death. Let's spam their mailroom with FuckedCompany
t-shirts. Let's go to their bankruptcy auction and buy their
laptops and publish their embarassing emails on our blogs. Let's
never put our trust in Verisign again.
(Thanks for Paul Hoffman for setting me straight about Verisign
and NetSol's relationship to one another)
Link, Link, Link Discuss (Thanks, Matt!)
There’s no way that I could have written that for any paying market. Calling for the death
of publicly traded companies is Just Not Done in the pages of responsible magazines.
What’s more, I discovered after the fact that I’d gotten some minor details wrong. A fact-
checker would have made me research these myself (or more likely would have made me
remove them altogether). Instead, a knowledgeable reader pointed out my errors and I
went back to the entry and fixed the mistakes, using strikethrough tags to indicate that I’d
corrected a mistake (this is an editorial convention I stole from Jason Kottke of
Likewise, blogging is a great way to plug the things that I’m excited about, even if I’m
involved in them (something that the average magazine would frown upon, due to bogus
conflict-of-interest policies). I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve plugged my
forthcoming novel, “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” (there I go again) on my
blog, and as you saw on the page I excerpted before, I’m not above talking up my
friends’ accomplishments and projects.
I blog what I want, when I want, how I want. I iterate towards the truth rather than
exhaustively researching it. I forcefully express my point of view, and use informal,
Beyond Boing Boing
Of course, blogs don’t have to be like Boing Boing. While Boing Boing casts a wide,
eclectic net, some other blogs are very focused indeed. Glen Fleishman’s 802.11b
Networking News (http://80211b.weblogger.com/) is one of the most authoratative news
sources for up-to-the-minute information on wireless networking technology, news and
policy. Researchbuzz (http://www.researchbuzz.com/) is my favorite place to get tips on
researching using the Internet, and TK, who maintains it, is always ferreting out useful
hidden features in Google.
There are blogs with one editor, blogs with two editors, blogs with gangs of editors.
There are humorous blogs like my friend Drue’s Who Would Buy That? at
http://www.whowouldbuythat.com, which surveys the weird crap for sale at eBay and
other auction sites. There are a nearly infinite number of political blogs, like the one that
the cartoonist Tom Tomorrow maintains at http://www.thismodernworld.com. The
Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties organization that I work for, uses blogs
to conduct activist campaigns, like the one at http://bpdg.blogs.eff.org.
Metafilter (http://www.metafilter.com) is a general-purpose blog that anyone can
contribute a story to, though people who repeatedly post stupid stories get kicked off the
system and/or flamed to a crisp by their fellow me-fi-ers. Memepool
(http://www.memepool.com) is another general-purpose blog, but only editors can post
stories; you get to be an editor by sending the existing editors three good suggestions.
Slashdot (http://slashdot.org) is a huge group blog that anyone can submit a story to,
though only the editorial staff (who are hired by Slashdot’s parent company) can post it
to the front page. Slashdot is so popular that it can send hundreds of thousands of surfers
to the sites that are listed on its front page, generating so much traffic that the target site
is overwhelmed and destroyed.
There are innumerable personal blogs – online journals that are targetted at a few friends
and family members, from baby-blogs with daily pics and progress reports of the fruits of
some blogger’s loins to recovery blogs that ex-junkies use to chronicle their struggles
with kicking their habits. There are event-blogs, like the one that an anonymous security
guard at the Salt Lake City Winter Games kept, chronicling the trials of maintaining
security at the first Olympic games after 9-11 (http://www.b-may.com/).
Blogs lend themselves to any use that generates frequent, short tidbits of information.
They are a means of capturing, sharing and archiving the infomorsels that cross our paths
on our daily round.
Anatomy of a blog post
The blog-post is the atomic unit of a blog. Blogs are made my successive postings. On a
good day, I’ll post 10-15 items to Boing Boing; some blogs are only updated once a
week, others get updated 30 or more times per day (my record is 27 posts in one day).
Everything about a blog-post is optional. There are no rules for blogging. That said,
here’s what a post on Boing Boing looks like:
Here are some of the salient features of that post:
A title serves much the same role as a newspaper headline, to sum up a post in a few
words that are meant to intrigue the reader and highlight some aspect of the story. A title
visually separates your posting from the one above it. Usability guru Jakob Nielsen, in his
essay on “Microcontent” (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/980906.html) warns headline
writers to be aware that headlines are often viewed out of context, on search-engine result
pages, in alphabetical listings (he advises leaving off leading “The”s and “A”s for this
reason), and as subject-headers for email and titles for Web pages.
As you’ll see later, titles are also used when blogs are syndicated using a technology
called RSS, in which they may appear in a list of hundreds or even thousands of other
blog headlines. The point is that your title should be separable from the posting below it –
informative even when taken out of context.
There are, of course, copyright issues when posting an image to your blog, and
technically it can be a little harder to post an image than it is post plain text (though
increasingly blogging engines make this simpler). Here are some tips for posting images:
• Don’t “inline” others’ images (link directly to images hosted on another server),
since this means that their bandwidth and server-cycles are used to serve images
on your blog. Make a local copy of the image on your own server.
• Crop and resize images to small thumbnails, sufficient to give your readers an
idea of what they’ll see if they follow the link. This is both a principle of fair use
of others’ copyrighted works and a means of speeding up the load-time for your
• Use the height and width and alt attributes in your image tags, which
speeds up load times for your readers.
• If you’re worried about copyright, send a note to the image’s author asking for
permission before posting.
The nice thing about blogs is that they’re infinite. There’s no word-limit, no copy-fit, no
sense of filling up all the space you have. If you want to write a 10,000-word polemic
about your subject, go ahead and pound on the keyboard like it was the perp what killed
That said, blog entries typically come in packs – you hardly ever get a blog entry all on
its lonesome. So the tradition is to keep blog entries short – a screenful or less.
Blogpostings to Jorn Barger’s Robot Wisdom Weblog (http://www.robotwisdom.com)
are a single, punchy sentence. Movable Type and some other blogging engines allow you
to create a “preview” block of text and a “full text” block for longer entries that is
automatically linked to in the preview text on the front page.
Infinite space aside, as with all writing, your blog entry should take exactly as many
words as it needs to to make its point, and not one word more.
Some blog authors play at mystery in their postings, writing deliberately obscure things
like “Boy, this sure must have hurt!” and nothing else. The idea is to pique the reader’s
interest with your pith and jocularity, so that he will follow the link to find out what it is
that hurt so much. I try never to do this, operating on the principle that the best way to get
someone to follow a link is to describe what’s on the other end of it and why it’s
Sometimes, the best way to explain why a page is blogworthy is to include a brief quote
or two. As with pictures, there are copyright issues associated with this, since fair use is
generally held to include only excerpts, not the whole text (though some would argue that
the standard for fair use is the minimum amount necessary to make the point, which
could, conceivably, be the whole thing).
It’s traditional to set off quotes from the main body of a blog post, using some
combination of blockquote tags and stylistic changes, like italicizing (long blocks of
italic text are difficult to read, though).
There are a lot of little niceties that comprise many blog entries. On Boing Boing, the
convention is to limit the number of links per entry to one, at the very end of the entry,
with the hot-text being “Link.” We do it this way for a couple of reasons:
1. We want our readers to get our context on a story before following the link. We
hope that people come to our blog to get information about the links we post, not
just links. Putting the link at the end of the post encourages readers to go through
the context before moving on.
2. Multiple, inline links can be confusing (on Memepool, the authors are fond of
sentences like, “Professional wrestlers are bigger than ever,” where every word
would be a link to a different page related to the blog entry). Setting the link off
on its own and limiting ourselves to one link per post makes the link itself
Discussion links are links to Web-based message-boards where your readers can talk
about your entries. Some blogs don’t bother with discussions, while others are defined by
the communities in their discussion areas. Some blogs have a different discussion area for
each post, others have a single Ür-message-board with a long, running discussion about
the posts on the front page.
Depending on which blog tool you use to maintain your blog, you may have to use a
third-party service to host your discussions. On Boing Boing, we use QuickTopic, at
http://www.quicktopic.com, creating a new topic for each post.
More about discussion areas later.
The currency of the Distributed Republic of Blogistan is the Link (L). L1 equals
1. Introduction to Blogging (30p, few screenshots)
* what is a blog: journal, bookmarks, op.ed, ...
* sample types of entries
* syndication, RSS, and aggregators
* blog communities
* blog host site vs on your own server
* what we don't talk about (LiveJournal, Graymatter,
Slashcode, various Blogger XML-RPC API-based apps, Scriptlets,
and so forth)